House alleges fraud, asks Tinubu to suspend Nigeria Air

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The House of Representatives, on Tuesday, declared the purported launching of Nigerian carrier, Air Nigeria, at the twilight of the administration of Muhammadu Buhari a fraud. The parliament asked President Bola Tinubu to suspend the process and probe those involved with the aim of prosecuting them.

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The declaration followed the denials by the relevant agencies of the Federal Government and regulators in the aviation sector as well as private partners of being involved in the exercise.

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At an investigative hearing organised by the House Committee on Aviation in Abuja, authorities such as Nigerian Airspace Management Agency, Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, and the Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission as well as an investor, Skyway Aviation Handling Company Plc, distanced themselves from the launching.

Chairman of the committee, Nnolim Nnaji, consequently declared the flag-off a fraud.

Nnaji said, “The committee, after careful evaluation of the issues on deliberation, is totally dissatisfied with the actions of the former Minister of Aviation, Sen. Hadi Sirka, in going ahead to flag off the operations of Nigeria Air despite a standing court/injunction against such, and without any provision for sustaining the operations of the airline.

“We are equally irked by the role played by Ethiopian Airlines in this whole process. It does not speak well of the excellent brotherly relationship existing between our two nations.

“A careful review of the process indicates the exercise to be highly opaque, shrouded in secrecy, shoddy and capable of ridiculing and tarnishing the image of Nigeria before the international community. We want to put on record that the committee, and indeed the National Assembly, had no role in the purported launch of Nigeria Air or anything related thereof.”

The chairman added, “While the committee, and indeed the parliament, is not opposed to Nigeria having a national carrier, as a matter of fact having a national carrier is highly desirable to us as a people and Nigeria as a nation, however, such a process should be transparent and all embracing. We as a committee would not accept any attempt by any individual or group of individuals or organisation to hide under the project and siphon our commonwealths.”

Consequently, the committee resolved to “direct the Federal Ministry of Aviation and its partners in the Nigeria Air project to immediately suspend flights operations and every other action with respect to Nigeria Air.”

The committee also urged President Bola Tinubu to “as a matter of urgency constitute a high level presidential committee to undertake a holistic review of the processes of the whole Nigeria Air project, and advise the government on the way forward.”

The lawmakers also urged Tinubu to “ensure that all individuals, or groups, or organisations involved in the controversial shenanigan named ‘Nigeria Air Take-Off’ are brought to book, prosecuted and sanctioned.”

The committee advise the Federal Ministry of Aviation and the relevant agencies to “designate some Nigerian indigenous airlines as ‘flying carriers’, to take advantage of Bi-lateral Air Services Agreements entered into by Nigeria, pending when a viable national carrier comes on board.”

The lawmaker concluded, “Looking at the total amount required to fully start the airline, which is put at $250,000,000, the Nigerian Government and its citizenry can raise these funds without necessarily subjecting itself to the ridicule we have been exposed to by this recent episode. This is what we suggest the new administration look into.”

Efforts to get the former aviation minister were unsuccessful, as he did not answer calls made to his mobile phones.

Sirika also did not respond to text messages that were sent to him on the matter, up till the time of filing this report.

Calls were made to his two telephone lines and they both rang out, but the former minister did not answer any, as he had yet to also reply to text messages sent to his two mobile phone numbers.

…Drama over ‘launching’ and ‘unveiling’

The Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Aviation and Aerospace, Emmanuel Meribole, denied that the Federal Government launched Nigeria Air, saying what was done was “unveiling,” stating that “nobody said it was launching.”

Meribole also said the Nigeria Air, as a project, was part of a roadmap for the aviation sector that was approved by former President Muhammadu Buhari in 2016. He noted that the process of having partners for the national carrier commenced in March 2021. “We followed due process with the ICRC that was giving birth to it through PPP (Public-Private Partnership),” he said.

The permanent secretary also noted that the Airline Operators of Nigeria had sued the ministry.

Nnaji asked the ministry’s scribe if he was aware of the court order asking all parties to stay action on Nigeria Air and while the national carrier was unveiled regardless.

Responding, Meribole said, “The court order said ‘stop negotiations’ which is different from unveiling.”

While the permanent secretary insisted that unveiling is different from launching “based on my knowledge”, the committee disagreed, with the chairman stating, “We want to put it to you that what happened that day was launching, not unveiling. They are the same thing. You don’t use English terms to confuse us.”

…Three court orders against ministry

Speaking for the AON, Roland Iyayi, noted that the association obtained three court orders against the Nigeria Air project which were specific.

Iyayi, a former Managing-Director of NAMA and President/CEO of Top Brass Aviation Limited, said, “The primary content of each one says that all actions regarding Nigeria Air – all – be stopped; maintain status quo as of the day the order was given. That, to us, means that anything – negotiations, discussions, transactions – must be stopped, including unveiling or launching.”

The AON also dismissed the claim by the Meribole that what the ministry did was a mere “static display” of the supposed Nigeria Air aircraft, stating that such are only done at air shows and not at an operational level.

…Deal incomplete, no signed agreement

In his presentation, the Director-General of ICRC, Michael Ohiani, stated that the process leading to Nigeria Air was incomplete even as of the time the court suspended the process.

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Ohiani said, “Like the Perm Sec had earlier alluded to, that the matter is in court; that is the more reason we have not concluded the processes. Because it is in court, we had a consultation with the Ministry of Justice even though the ICRC is not joined as a party. The Ministry of Justice asked us to stay off until the…(matter is concluded).

“The shareholders’ agreement has not been signed…Negotiation to resume as soon as the court injunction is lifted…Full Business Case to be prepared and submitted to the Federal Executive Council for approval. These have not been done. We have not issued a Full Business Case. Once it is presented to FEC and it is approved, it will then be forwarded to the Federal Ministry of Justice for vetting. Then, there will be contract execution.

“Because of the court matter, the Ministry of Justice advised us and we took their advice. That is the reason we have stopped (work) on other processes with the Nigeria Air. You will also notice I was not at the unveiling.”

…Launching, a sakamanje

Speaking for SAHCO, Boye Oyewunmi, started by urging the committee to grant him two minutes “to delve into what is in the shareholders’ agreement that any sensible Nigerian will not append their signature to.”

Oyewunmi said despite SAHCO being part of the shareholders, “we did not even know about the static or airborne display, we saw it on social media.”

According to him, SAHCO was to have a 15 per cent stake, with MRS taking another 15 per cent as strategic partners. He said they were, however, not invited to the “purported unveiling.”

He stated, “I am a bit surprised that the Perm Sec is attempting to whitewash this thing. It is a very embarrassing situation. The whole process looks like a politically-driven process that was just meant to…they call it ‘sakamanje’…a whitewash before the government leaves. I don’t know who was there. Even a phone call or email or text (was not sent)…We would not have even attended it anyway because we know what it means. The illegality cannot be corrected by static display.”

…Airline launching is fraud

While a member of the committee, Ifeanyi Momah, moved a motion that Meribole be put on oath due to the “discrepancies and disparity” in his presentation to the panel, which was seconded by another member, Kolawole Lawal, the chairman pleaded that the permanent secretary be allowed to speak freely.

While Meribole continued to defend the action of the ministry, Nnaji said, “You brought in an aircraft from Ethiopia and painted it ‘Nigeria Air’ and you launched it. People were happy. You launched/unveiled. But immediately, the next day, the aircraft left back to Ethiopia and they removed the logo. It is now operating as an Ethiopian Airline aircraft.”

The chairman asked if the ministry procured any plane for Nigeria Air and Meribole said none had been bought. He also said the ministry had not secured an AOC from the NCAA. According to the Perm Sec, there is a lot of misinformation on social media.

Nnaji, however, pointed out that an AOC is needed to launch an airline.

The chairman also declined the request by Meribole that an interim MD/CEO of Nigeria Air be allowed to make some clarifications, stating that the person is not known to the committee as the firm does not exist.

“There is no shareholders’ agreement. The whole thing is a fraud. There is no shareholders’ agreement; there is no Full Business Case. As far as I am concerned, we don’t know the acting MD,” Nnaji stated.

…Medicine after death

Speaking again, the SAHCO representative said, “What happened was a naming ceremony without a birth. Without a child being born, a naming ceremony took place.” He said the ministry should have invited the “family members” including SAHCO to attend the “naming ceremony.”

He said the partners were invited to sign the shareholders’ agreement on a Saturday “after the so-called static presentation.” He added, “So, you have done the naming ceremony and are looking for a birth certificate.”

…Ethiopian Airline’s plane chartered

While the Director-General of the NCAA, Musa Nuhu, denied being part of the ceremony as he was meant to only carry out regulatory functions, he noted that an AOC was not issued to Air Nigeria due to the court order.

The Managing Director of NAMA, Mohammed Odunowo, however, disclosed that the aircraft was actually chartered.

Odunowo said, “We had an approval and we granted the aircraft a flight permit. It was meant to be a chartered flight…from Ethiopia to Nigeria and back. It was a chartered flight. It went back the following day.”

According to him, Ethiopian Airlines chartered the plane to Nigeria.

When asked if he saw the inscription ‘Nigeria Air’ on the aircraft, Odunowo said, “It is an Ethiopian registration. That was the way it was identified.”

…Nigeria Air confirms plane charter

The acting MD/CEO of Nigeria Air, Captain Dapo Olumide, who was eventually allowed to speak, confirmed that the aircraft was chartered.

“The aircraft was a chartered flight and of course, as a chartered flight, you can paint the aircraft in any colour you want. If it was meant to go for a destination wedding and you are chartering the aircraft to take your guests to Accra for the wedding, if you want, you can have the aircraft painted – the tail – with your wife’s picture. Whatever you want, it is a chartered flight.”

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